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“Let it Be”

My mom was a smoker. I think of her and I smell smoke. She would attempt to cover the smell with a spritz of some Walmart brand strong floral scent, but it’d just mix with the smoke and be worse than before. When I was younger I was embarrassed of her smoking because the other boys at school were able to smell the odor of cigarettes deep inside my clothes. The smell never bothered Dad much; he was in love with her so it was different for him. In high school, before I could drive on my own, I would grab my freshly cleaned shirt out of the dryer and run with it through the smoke-filled house and outside. There were times when I even went shirtless and dangled my button-down out of the window so that it wouldn’t be inside the car, hot boxing with me and my mom. I was subtle about it and knew that if I ever tried to tell her that it embarrassed me, she would get stressed and smoke more. I got the guts to finally say something, kind of. For one of her birthdays I bought her a pack of quitting patches. I saw them the other weekend when I was home from college to visit; they were collecting dust in the corner of her bookshelf beside two bowls of guitar picks.

Throughout high school I never invited any of my friends over to hang out, like many of them had for me. My parents sent me to the oldest private school in Savannah, Georgia, so all of my friend’s moms dressed like they had money. I was able to stay at the school because of Dad’s two jobs and a whole lot of financial aid, but to me, she could have bought a decent sweater from a thrift store and invested in something that didn’t make the boys and girls at my school stare when she picked me up. I just didn’t want my friends to see Momma in the living room, going through cigarettes like they were PEZ candies as she sat in her nightgown watching reruns of Roseanne. Though, I knew it truly wouldn’t matter whether or not she wore nice clothes like the other moms, she would still be caked in a layer of smelly smoke. The same smell that made the girls nauseous if I tried to impress them at the 8th grade dance. Luckily I learned my tricks of holding my shirt out of her car window and using Lysol right after she took my pants out of the dryer, just in case some smoke latched on quickly. Now I hate the smell of aerosol air fresheners.

If the first thing that comes to mind about Momma is the smell of her Doral Ultralights, the second is her calloused hands. When she’d hug me I’d feel the hard pads of her fingertips land on my bare arms. Whenever the padded fingers would touch my skin, I would think about the time Momma made me try to play guitar with her the summer before high school. All my friends were playing sports, which never interested me much, so I begged for her to teach me how to play just as well as she could. That whole summer came down to early Sunday evenings on the back porch with Momma, her guitar in my arms and endless amounts of choppy chords that were supposed to sound like “Hey Jude.” I didn’t notice until right before the summer ended that all of our guitar sessions were spent with a smoke-free mother, busy showing me certain cords instead of lighting up cigarette after cigarette. Dad never came out during these practice sessions. He stayed inside to watch TV or whatever it was he did alone. I didn’t mind that he never joined us, I never really knew how to communicate with him and we didn’t have much in common. I don’t think he ever got over the expectations he had for a son that wasn’t me.

If there was a break in instructions for playing the guitar, my mother or I would fill the silence with numerous stories. I told her about the kids who snuck out of class to go write on the girls’ cars that were parked outside of the high school. I told her about my best friend Sammy and how he was trying out for the football team in the fall. My mother already knew that sports weren’t my thing so she didn’t pester me to join him. I even told my mother about the girl I liked in my Physics class who continued to ignore my attempts at conversation.

“She doesn’t even respond when I say anything to her, not that I care but it makes me look like an idiot in front of the other boys in my class,” I said to my mother the day after Claire refused to open the note I passed her in Physics. Instantly regretting bringing my mother into my problems with girls, I grabbed the guitar in hopes that we could just start playing again.

“All you can do is be yourself and you’ll meet a girl one day that is good enough to see that you’re the best man out there,” she persisted.

I wanted to tell her, “She told another girl that I smelled horrible with a motion of a cigarette as she threw away the note I handed her. She did it in front of everyone. What was I supposed to say? She didn’t ignore me because she didn’t like who I was, she ignored me because I smelled like I had just sat in tavern with old men smoking all day!” I wanted to tell her that but I didn’t because I know it would force her to go inside and smoke.

“I hope so Momma,” I said smiling as I grabbed the guitar.

Sometimes I would tell her about the books I was reading. I never saw her read but she was always excited to hear me tell the stories that were collecting wear in my JanSport from taking them back and forth to school. Mostly sci-fi novels.

“I finished Ender’s Game today. I loved it. Ender, he’s the main character and he was this boy that everyone made fun of at the beginning of the novel but turned out to be chosen for the special school because he was so smart. After they go to war, Ender writes this book about everything that happened. There’s also all this manipulation between Ender and his crazy brother and in the end, Ender writes his brother’s version of the story as well and signs them both with the same title. Momma, you should read it. It only took me a day, I think it is meant for younger kids” I said, all in one breath. I knew she wouldn’t read it but there was no way to capture how much I loved that book into words.

In return for my confessions on girls and book reviews, my mother would tell me stories of when she played guitar in bars after college. My favorite being the time she had to punch a guy off the stage for trying to drunkenly grab her guitar during her rendition of “Wonderful Tonight” and she wasn’t taking no for an answer. I would proudly stare at her every time she told me that story before she’d laugh and point at the guitar for me to start playing. Other times, she’d tell the story about how she and my dad met for the first time.

She met Dad in college. Well, when she was in college and he was a groundskeeper at the University of Georgia. I always expected her to talk about college like it was something she regretted leaving, but she didn’t. She’d talk about the lawn where she and her friends would gather after class to watch the young man mowing the lawn and trimming the bushes. She’d describe marching up to him after being dared from her friends to be the first one to talk to him. During that part in the story, I always hoped that girls would still be like that when I went to college. I never had much luck dealing with them in high school. What high school girl wanted a shy guy who hated sports and started to sweat as soon as he tried to talk to a girl?

She left after her sophomore year; her last semester was the one when she met my dad. He worked during the day perfecting the yard for countless future professionals and at night he’d watch Momma play guitar at a local bar. Their weekends were spent travelling to Savannah. She’d light up when talking about strolling down the river-walk, describing the tiny specialty shops of candy or jewelry. I imagined the sun beating on her from the reflection of the water and gaining a deeper tan with each new weekend visit. I imagined my father trying to sneak into one of the bars to try and catch the score of his favorite team. Probably the same team that’s jersey my dad hung beside my crib when I was born. Maybe if I knew what that team was, then I would have liked sports and I wouldn’t have needed Momma to teach me guitar. I would be at one of my games and then go out on a date with my girlfriend who I would be happy to quit college for and marry. I would be happy to live in a small house with our one child and Momma could come over to babysit. Maybe that would have happened if I liked sports and hadn’t kept Momma outside playing the guitar.

***

            I guess it was shocking because for years I yelled at Momma that she would die from smoking so much. Mostly just to scare her into stopping. Grandma had a scare once when I was in 7th grade, and she had smoked for 30 years. The doctors told her that if she didn’t quit then she wasn’t going to live much longer, so she quit cold turkey. If her mom could do it, then there wasn’t an excuse for Momma to keep chain smoking. In the back of my head, I was always scared of the moment when we would find out that there was a hunk of charcoal in Momma where a plump pink lung should be. Instead, it was speckles of irregular shaped freckles and moles on her back. Mom went out on the back porch a lot, whether to smoke alone or teach me guitar. She’d always wear a thin muu muu or whatever it is she called it, I know she never wore sunscreen. She always made me apply layers on my face and back, but I can’t remember seeing her ever wear any. I tried to remember if she was in the shade at all, during my numerous book reviews of Harry Potter, but all I remembered was the way I thought Snape betrayed Harry after The Half-Blood Prince.

She died a month after the doctor found that they were more than pretty constellations of freckles. I never wanted to go back to the house, but Dad called saying there were a few things of Momma’s that I needed to come get. The house still had a coating of cigarette smoke, it was like walking through a thick veil of memories I wasn’t ready to remember. I noticed the family picture hanging directly in front of me. I focused on my father’s wide smile and his wrinkled eyes intently looking at Momma. We had gone to Sears to get the picture taken a few Christmases ago, even though he hated having his picture taken, he did it because it was important to Momma. I thought it was stupid, but I can’t remember why I thought that and I know that I wasn’t going to try and remember.

My Dad greeted me in the living room, giving me a long hug which forced me to smell his Irish Spring soap and peppermint patty breath. His eyes were just as wrinkled as in the photo, but they were also red and puffy. My father wasn’t an insensitive person, but still, I had never seen him cry. I can’t even remember the last time we hugged.

“I packed up her things and put them in a safe for you to take when you get ready to through all of it. I know she’d want you to have this though” he said, pulling the guitar from the back couch. I thought about throwing it on the table and storming out, but immediately noticed the scratch at the bottom. I remember when I knocked the guitar against the railing of the back porch and Momma freaked out for a good five minutes before forgiving me and starting to teach me “Let it Be.” Yet another Beatles song for me to butcher.

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